On Sunday, brands will shell out millions of dollars on their Super Bowl ads—many of which feature elaborate, multi-day production schedules—in hopes of connecting with the telecast’s 100 million-plus viewers. But sometimes, the most effective messaging during the Big Game comes from spots that were shot quickly and inexpensively.
That was the case with the surprise spot that ran eight years ago during Super Bowl XLIV on CBS. The 15-second promo for Late Show With David Letterman featured surprise cameos from Oprah Winfrey and, most notably, Letterman’s late-night rival, Jay Leno.
The 2010 promo opens with a grumpy Letterman watching TV and muttering, “This is the worst Super Bowl party ever.” It cuts to a two-shot with Winfrey sitting next to him, who tells the comedian to “be nice.” Then, another two-shot reveals Leno, who is sitting on the other side of Winfrey and says, “He’s just saying that because I’m here.” Letterman then repeats the line, doing his Leno imitation, while an exasperated Winfrey throws up her hands.
The spot was shot in roughly 20 minutes on a living room set constructed inside the Ed Sullivan Theater. Leno and Winfrey secretly flew to New York for the filming, with Leno donning a disguise (a hooded sweatshirt, glasses and a fake mustache) as he slipped into the theater.
“I flew to New York, we did the ad in 20 minutes, and I came home. Not a lot of takes, nothing particularly difficult,” said Leno of the promo. “It’s like a joke: the quicker and faster you get to it, the better it is. Sometimes, when you throw money at something, it doesn’t work as well.”
The spot came as tensions had reignited between Letterman and Leno, whom Letterman blamed for NBC’s treatment of Conan O’Brien, whose run as Tonight Show host lasted just eight months before Leno returned to the show, a few weeks after the Super Bowl promo aired.
Leno knew the spot would get a reaction—“you hope so!”—but he wasn’t expecting people to question whether they had all actually appeared together on camera. “People thought it was fake, or they Photoshopped me in, or Photoshopped Oprah,” said Leno.
The promo, which ended up being one of the most talked-about Super Bowl spots that year, was seen by an estimated 110.4 million viewers.
Leno returned to the Super Bowl two years later when he appeared in an Acura ad with Jerry Seinfeld. (He had previously starred in Doritos Super Bowl ads in the late ’80s and early ’90s.) While that spot might not have resounded like his Letterman/Winfrey promo in 2010, he ended up with a much more memorable parting gift.
“I’ve got an Acura, so yeah, it worked out OK,” said Leno, who ended up with one of the NSX models that had been featured in the ad. “It was part of our deal.”
The famous car enthusiast now regularly works with automotive brands on Jay Leno’s Garage, which airs Thursday nights on CNBC.
“We’re not negative. We never trash a car. If we don’t like a car, we don’t put it on,” said Leno. “We have a good rapport with all our sponsors, because we say, ‘Look, here’s what we’re going to do with your car. We’re not going to lie to you.’ We don’t trick anybody.”
During a recent Jay Leno’s Garage shoot at the Hyundai Proving Grounds in the California desert, “I could see Hyundai was very suspicious, because I think some other car show had trashed it, and I said, ‘If you don’t like it, we won’t use it. We want to have fun with the product where you like it too, and you enjoy it,’” said Leno. “And it worked out well, and they were quite happy with it.”
Ultimately, said Leno, “it just seems like good business sense. They make a good product, and you show it in an appealing way that’s hopefully also funny, and everybody’s happy.”